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'Moved and Inspired': Meet the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners

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Goldman Environmental Prize Foundation

Six grassroots environmental activists will receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize today. Dubbed the Green Nobel Prize, the Goldman Prize honors environmental activists from each of the six continental regions: Europe, Asia, North America, Central America and South America, Africa and islands and island nations.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Prize founded in 1989 by U.S. philanthropists Rhoda and Richard Goldman. To date, 194 winners from 89 different nations have received this award.


This year's winners include an environmental and human rights lawyer who stopped the destruction of Liberia's tropical forests, a conservationist who helped create a large protected area in Mongolia and a biologist from North Macedonia who fought against hydropower plants planned inside a critical habitat of the rare Balkan lynx. The winners also include an indigenous leader from Chile who led a movement against two hydroelectric projects on a sacred river, a marine conservationist who campaigned to protect the Cook Islands' marine biodiversity, and an activist from the U.S. who rallied residents to stop the construction of a massive oil export terminal that could have threatened the health and safety of the local community.

"I am so moved and inspired by these six environmental trailblazers," Susie Gelman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said in a statement. "Each of them has selflessly stood up to stop injustice, become a leader when leadership was critical, and vanquished powerful adversaries who would desecrate our planet. These are six ordinary, yet extraordinary, human beings who remind us that we all have a role in protecting the Earth."

The winners will be honored at the San Francisco Opera House in California, U.S., on April 29. Former U.S. vice president and environmental activist Al Gore will present the keynote address.

Here are the winners of the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize:

Alfred Brownell, Liberia

Alfred Brownell, an environmental lawyer, has been a champion of Liberia's tropical forests, protecting them from being cleared for palm oil plantations.

In 2010, the Liberian government granted a 65-year lease of about 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles) to Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a Southeast Asia-based agro-industrial company, to establish palm oil plantations in the country. But there were reports that the company was allegedly clearing community forests without consent or compensation, and damaging sacred sites and farms and polluting water sources.

Brownell worked with the local communities to file a complaint against GVL with the global certification body for palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The complaint worked: RSPO stopped GVL from expanding its plantations, halting the clearing of 94 percent of the forest leased to GVL.

The company went on to sign more agreements to develop plantations, but reportedly failed to deliver on the jobs and other benefits it had promised, resulting in violent clashes and arrests of community members. Brownell collated more legal evidence to demonstrate GVL's malpractices, and in 2018 the RSPO dismissed GVL's appeal against the initial stay on its palm oil expansion.

Currently a research associate professor in the School of Law at Northeastern University in Boston, Brownell was forced to flee to the U.S. with his family because of death threats. But he hopes to return to his country soon.

Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, Mongolia

The South Gobi Desert in Mongolia is a major mining hub, with deposits of coal, uranium, copper, gold, oil and gas. It is also a critical habitat of the threatened snow leopard (Panthera uncia), a species that's declining in number due to habitat loss, poaching and retaliatory killing for livestock predation.

Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, currently the Mongolia director for the conservation NGO Snow Leopard Trust, became interested in snow leopards while translating for a scientist visiting the area. She went on to work on various conservation projects involving Mongolia's herder communities. In 2009, after learning about the widespread mining operations in the Tost Mountains in the South Gobi Desert, a key migration habitat for the snow leopard, she began working with the local Tost community to create the massive Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve.

Spread across 7,280 square kilometers (2,800 square miles), the nature reserve is the first formally protected area in Mongolia created specifically to protect the snow leopard. Agvaantseren's campaigning also pressured the government to cancel 37 active mining licenses granted in the reserve.

Ana Colovic Lesoska, North Macedonia

Only about 30 critically endangered Balkan lynxes (Lynx lynx balcanicus) are believed to live in North Macedonia today. And they're almost all found in Mavrovo National Park bordering Albania and Kosovo. In 2010, two large hydropower plants were proposed in Mavroro, their funding secured through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank.

Ana Colovic Lesoska, the director and founder of the Eko-Svest Center for Environmental Research and Information, brought together North Macedonian NGOs and environmental law activists in a "Save Mavroro" campaign. Colovic Lesoska went door-to-door to inform locals about the impacts of the projects, organized public protests, launched a petition asking the government, EBRD and World Bank to stop the projects, and even filed a complaint with the EBRD alleging that it had approved funding for the hydropower projects without adequately assessing the impacts on the biodiversity of the area.

The World Bank ultimately withdrew its funding, a North Macedonian court scrapped the given environmental permit, and the EBRD canceled its loan.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Jacqueline Evans, Cook Islands


Over the course of five years, marine conservationist Jacqueline Evans rallied public support to achieve an unexpected feat. She helped create the multi-use Marae Moana marine park, a protected area that covers all of the Cook Islands' exclusive economic zone, spanning 1.9 million square kilometers (763,000 square miles) of the country's ocean territory. The park also includes a 50-nautical-mile (93-kilometer) zone around each of the 15 islands where commercial fishing and sea-bed mining isn't permitted, leaving the areas to be used by island communities.

To make the marine park a reality, Evans traveled across the islands with a team of government, NGO and traditional leaders, meeting with communities, listening to their priorities and building trust. She also partnered with a local rugby star Kevin Iro to create the Marae Moana Establishment Trust, and worked with global experts to design and draft the legislation around the marine park. As the director of the Marae Moana Coordination Office, Evans is now working to create a national Marae Moana spatial plan to ensure that all of the Cooks' ocean territory is managed sustainably.

Alberto Curamil, Chile

Alberto Curamil, an indigenous leader of the Mapuche people in Chile's Araucanía region, has been leading the fight against hydropower projects that he says will destroy Araucanía's forests and rivers. To mount resistance against the projects, Curamil rallied not only the Mapuche people but also non-Mapuche members, including environmental organizations and academics.

He organized protests, road blockades and even launched a legal campaign alleging that the Chilean government had permitted the hydropower projects without the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities. In 2016, Chile canceled two of the planned hydropower projects, citing public opposition for one and lack of consent and adequate assessment of environmental impacts for the other.

In 2018, Curamil was arrested for allegedly being involved in a robbery, a charge that his community says is a result of his activism against the hydropower projects. Curamil is still in jail.

Linda Garcia, United States

Environmental activist Linda Garcia led a campaign that ultimately stopped North America's largest proposed oil terminal from being built.

A resident of Fruit Valley, a small neighborhood in Vancouver, Washington, Garcia first heard of the Tesoro Savage oil terminal project in 2013. This project, which was scheduled to be set up close to her neighborhood, planned to transport 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of oil per day, creating what would be North America's largest oil terminal. With Fruit Valley already suffering from bad air quality, Garcia was concerned that the oil project would further threaten the safety and well-being of her community.

She dug deep into the company's past records, campaigned and raised public support to oppose the project, and became a spokesperson. She also testified as a community witness at public hearings and city council meetings despite multiple death threats and suffering from an illness that required chemotherapy. The efforts of Garcia and other campaigners bore fruit in 2018, when permits for the Tesoro Savage project were denied and the company's lease was terminated.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.